Were War Crimes Common in World War II?
|German troops raise their rifles to execute hostages in Kondomari, Crete, 2 June 1941 (Franz Peter Weixler, Federal Archive Figure 101I-166-0525-39).|
Many war crimes occurred in World War II. They were committed by both sides. There were a lot of war crimes. Most of them went unpunished. Those committed by the Axis powers tended to be punished more than those by the Allies, but each side saw most go not only unpunished but virtually unnoticed.
There are several problems with holding parties responsible for war crimes. First, there is a matter of proof. For instance, a plane can strafe survivors in the water after a ship is sunk - but it is impossible to prove that the bullets were intended to kill the helpless survivors who posed no threat to anyone. Virtually everyone would agree that is a war crime regardless of law or agreements, yet it was rumored to happen. Nobody was punished for it.
Second, a warring party often will excuse war crimes because "They did it first!" or some similar rationale. This justifies a lot of war crimes. Something may be done accidentally, or without orders, and the other side will make assumptions and presumptions and begin an escalation in retaliation. Neither side is blameless in this - the side that made the error is equally culpable by not punishing their troops that made the initial error. The escalation, though, is a joint endeavor.
Third, a government may use war crimes as an instrument of policy. This happened quite often during World War II. In other words, the acts may be crimes according to international norms and obligations, but either officially or tacitly sanctioned by the government. These were perhaps the most common types of war crimes during World War II. When the leaders lack morality, the immoral becomes legal. There are no "bright lines" here, and people will defend these decisions to the death along the lines of "Well, there's a war on, you know," "That's just how war is," "You can't let the other side have an advantage by being cruel" and the like. How you feel about that involves a moral judgment, and morality is one of the first casualties in war.
|Victims of the Pancevo, Serbia, Massacre being marched to their executions on 22 April 1941.|
I want to make plain that, according to standard histories, the facts suggest that the preponderance of war crimes appear to have been committed by the Axis powers. However, it is quite possible to wrench things around in such a way so as to portray things from a completely different perspective and assign equal or even greater blame to the Allies. It all depends on how you view the bombing of civilian centers - which was illegal according to accepted international law. The thing is, once you make a simple judgment - "that was completely justified because..." - it completely wishes an entire class of massive possible war crimes away. And, that was done during World War II and remains the accepted position in most quarters today.
However, the point of this article is not to assign blame, but just to give a few illustrations of how and why war crimes occur. Weighing the relative blame for war crimes involves moral and political judgments that are beyond the scope of this article. The point is that moral ambiguity creeps into discussions about war crimes, and whether an act is a "crime" or just "part of war" often depends on prevailing but transient doctrines and justifications. When winning is the only thing that matters, "crimes" start to disappear.
So, let's look at some specific topics relating to war crimes. You may decide for yourself how my choices fit into the category of war crimes - there is plenty of room for disagreement. I realize some who read this are going to disagree with my even raising some of these topics. I'm okay with that.
|Flying Fortresses of the 303rd bomber group (Hell’s Angels) drop a heavy load on industrial targets in Germany. (Bettmann / Corbis).|
1. The Bombing of Civilian CentersWhile the bombing of civilian centers took place during World War I, the technology was not advanced enough to destroy cities. World War II was different. The bombing of civilian centers occurred by both sides during World War II. It was not clearly outlawed at the outset of the war, though the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 certainly seemed to outlaw the dropping of bombs. The Conventions prohibited the dropping of projectiles from balloons, "or by other new methods of a similar nature." This certainly seems to cover airplanes. All of the major powers ratified either the 1899 Convention which contained this prohibition or the 1907 agreement which incorporated it.
The judges of the military tribunal of the "Trial of German Major War Criminals" at the Nuremberg Trials found that by 1939, the rules laid down in the 1907 Hague Convention were recognized by all civilized nations and were regarded as declaratory of the laws and customs of war. Under this post-war decision, a country did not have to have ratified the 1907 Hague Convention in order to be bound by them. This is further evidence that the prohibition on dropping bombs was in effect. However, this was sufficiently murky that everybody wound up simply ignoring the morality of the bombing of civilian centers. Once you decide that some rule does not apply, all bets are off.
However, despite both pre-war and post-war agreement that the bombing of civilian centers was illegal, it happened throughout the war.
|Luftwaffe bombers over Warsaw, 1939.|
Well, the Luftwaffe did bomb civilian targets in Poland and, later, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. The British media cheerfully chipped in by calling this "terror bombing." This led to an "all bets are off" position by the British government. On 11 May 1940, the British Air Ministry took the radical step of authorizing attacks on purely civilian targets in Germany. On 15 May 1940, Sir Cyril Newall, Chief of the Air Staff, authorized Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal to begin strategic bombing raids against Germany
Despite this, the British and Germans basically restricted their bombing of each other to purely military targets. Partly, this was due to the war situation, as the battlefront was far from England until mid-1940. Once again, this shows a moral ambiguity, as everyone knew that the bombing of civilians was wrong but rationalized that it would be okay if the other side began to do it.
How the bombing of civilian centers became common shows a classic escalation pattern, so let's start from the beginning. The first air raid of the war was conducted by the Luftwaffe on 1 September 1939. At 4:40 a.m., the Luftwaffe attacked the Polish town of Wieluń, causing extensive damage and killing an estimated 1200 civilians and soldiers. Later that day, air attacks commenced against Kraków, Łódź, and Warsaw. However, Great Britain was not at war with Germany until two days later, so this did not really affect it directly.
|RAF plotters in 1943.|
As the war continued, Germany and Great Britain took pains to avoid specifically targeting population centers. The targets were military objectives, not cities, though the military targets might be in or near cities. At 03:30 on 22 August 1940, however, this changed. The Luftwaffe dropped bombs on Harrow and Wealdstone near London. Technically, these areas were not in London. For all intents and purposes (and in the view of the Home Guard), though, they were indeed considered part of the London metropolitan area. The sector was part of the London Civil Defence Area.
The British viewed this as the breaking of an unspoken agreement and acted accordingly. On 25 August 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered RAF Bomber Command to send a bomber force to Berlin. This turned into one of the RAF's larger raids of the war to date. Churchill did not say to "bomb military and industrial targets," just to bomb the city. This marked a new phase in the bombing campaign. This became the new RAF policy.
|A Luftwaffe bombing run during the campaign in Poland.|
This set the pattern for the remainder of the war. On 14 February 1942, the Royal Air Force issued the Area Bombing Directive (General Directive No.5 (S.46368/111. D.C.A.S) amendment to General Directive No.4 (S.46368 D.C.A.S). The Area Bombing Directive had as its core instruction:
To focus attacks on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular the industrial workers. In the case of Berlin harassing attacks to maintain fear of raids and to impose A. R. P. measures."That was Hitler's failed strategy, and it eventually failed for the British, too. By adopting this directive, the RAF essentially ratified the strategy adopted by the Luftwaffe in September 1940 during the Battle of Britain. Thus, the escalation reached its inevitable end, the RAF embraced terror bombing as an official strategy. There was a small minority of people in Great Britain, including some in Parliament, who felt this tactic was immoral and wrong, but they were powerless. So, the RAF danced with the Devil because it was convenient.
|"Bomber" Harris saw no problem with bombing civilian centers. In fact - civilians were his objective, as he wanted to destroy their morale.|
The [Germans] entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.There wasn't any moral ambiguity about this at all. The motive was simply revenge. Pre-war conventions certainly were not a factor.
Let us recite a few inconvenient truths. The Germans never bombed the United States, but the Americans started bombing Germany as soon as they could. The United States Army Air Force (USAAF) bombed Japan for the first time in mid-April 1942. This was before the Japanese had bombed any US civilian centers (the Pearl Harbor attack on 7 December 1941 had military bases as its targets, though many civilians were killed as part of the attacks). In fact, the most inconvenient truth is that Germany and Japan never bombed any civilian centers on the US mainland throughout the war. Just to be complete, the Japanese sent scattered bombs dropped by unguided balloons and mounted two bombing raids in the Pacific Northwest in uninhabited areas. There is no comparison between a few balloon bombs and two nuclear bombs, let alone the firestorm raids on Tokyo. But "morality" was out the window by that point, as was the notion of any kind of bombing - any kind at all - as a war crime.
At least by 1942, and really much earlier, the Allied war policy had become "goal-oriented." The only goal was to win. Let's not be naive here - the world is a better place for the Allied victory. Did that justify using any means necessary and breaking laws to win? A lot of reasonable people would say yes. You can decide on your own.
So, to sum up, was the bombing of civilian areas a war crime? It is an important question due to the scale of the consequences. Well, it was considered one both before and after World War II. Arguably, it was prohibited by international law. During a hard war, though, such rules disappear, and that is what happened during World War II. The Allies never prosecuted anyone for the "terror bombing" that was so loudly protested early in the war. You can't very well prosecute people for something your own side later did routinely, now can you.
|The Heinkel He-59 search-and-rescue plane shot down at Goodwin Sands on 9 July 1940.|
2. Search and Rescue PlanesThe air war on the Channel Front, known popularly as the "Battle of Britain," saw numerous war crimes that eventually were simply defined away as crimes altogether. Both sides wanted to rescue their pilots from "the drink" and went to great lengths to mount search-and-rescue operations. Rescue operations were privileged by the Geneva Convention agreement stating that belligerents must respect each other's "mobile sanitary formations" such as field ambulances and hospital ships. However, the usual qualifications and presumptions and moral ambiguities soon crept into this area as in so many others.
The German Seenotdienst controlled search-and-rescue operations in a very efficient manner. The most successful tool were floatplanes. Both Heinkel He-59 and Dornier Do-18 seaplanes were painted white just like hospital ships and cruised the Channel looked for downed pilots. The unarmed Heinkel He-59C-2 and Heinkel He-59D-1 and Dorniers were completely painted in white, with red crosses on the sides and civil registration. They were instantly recognizable.
|A Dornier Do-18 seaplane. These were often used for search-and-rescue missions. They were no longer painted white after the RAF began shooting them down.|
On 14 July 1940, the Air Ministry issued Bulletin 1254 stating that all such "rescue" planes were to be treated as viable targets just like all other Luftwaffe planes. This Bulletin had quick results. RAF ace James Lacey, for instance, shot down a Luftwaffe He 59 seaplane on 17 July 1940. This was not a "war crime" solely due to the Bulletin.
When the Germans protested, Churchill categorically dismissed the whole notion that search-and-rescue aircraft were protected by the treaty. In response, the Seenotdienst had no choice but to arm its rescue planes and camouflage them. The Luftwaffe even gave them a fighter escort.
|A captured Rettungsboje.|
So, this is another example of war crimes being casually "defined away" or simply ignored by the powers that be. This is an easy way to say that your side never committed war crimes - because you simply defined them out of existence as crimes altogether.
|HMAS Waterhen towing damaged hospital ship Vita to Tobruk (Australian War Memorial P01810.001).|
3. Hospital ShipsSo far, we have looked at two ambiguous situations, the bombing of civilians and the targeting of search-and-rescue planes, which some could argue were not war crimes. However, nobody could dispute that hospital ships were clearly covered by the Geneva Convention. They were clearly marked by being pained white with huge red crosses on them. The likelihood of accidentally mistaking a hospital ship for a legitimate target was very small.
However, many hospital ships were attacked during World War II, with many of those sunk. It should suffice simply to list a few of these attacks to show that it happened, and fairly regularly. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, just a small sample. One source lists 25 hospital ships sunk during the war.
On 11 August 1941, for instance, RAF Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bombers of RAF No. 830 Squadron based on Malta attacked shipping in Syracuse harbor on Sicily. This was a standard target for the RAF which they hit every week, and sometimes daily. Thus, the pilots should have been reasonably familiar with the harbor and the ships in it. This attack was slightly different than the norm because one of the torpedoes sank 13,060-ton Italian hospital ship California (formerly SS Albania pre-1930). The wreck settled in 30 feet of water.
On 14 April 1941, Luftwaffe Junkers Ju-87 Stukas attacked and severely damaged 4691-ton British hospital ship Vita off Tobruk. Fortunately, Royal Navy destroyer HMS Waterhen was nearby and rescued 486 people. The ship eventually sank from its damage on 22 April 1941. On the same day as the attack on the Vita, the Luftwaffe bombed and sank 1134-ton Greek hospital ship Sokratis off Antikyra, Gulf of Corinth.
On 31 January 1941, the Luftwaffe (apparently KG 26) hit and damaged 9717 ton Royal Navy hospital ship HMS Dorsetshire in the Gulf of Sollum. That this ship was hit again on 1 February 1941, suggesting that the attacks were intentional.
|Hospital ship Po, sunk by the RAF.|
Nobody was ever prosecuted for these attacks, much less punished. Some of these incidents might be classified as mistakes - but all of them?
|HMT Dunera, which was the subject of claims of mistreatment during World War II.|
4. The Dunera IncidentOn 10 July 1940, 2,542 persons, including Italian and German POWs and British citizens suspected of being German sympathizers and aliens interned in England, were embarked on British troopship HMT Dunera to Australia for internment. Among the 2,542 were 2,036 anti-Germans, mainly Jewish refugees. During the 57-day trip, the British guards mistreated the passengers savagely, with reports of beatings and systematic robberies. Conditions on the overcrowded ship wear abysmal and led to dysentery and other illnesses.
Unlike many other incidents, the Dunera incident led to punishment for some of the evil-doers. On 13 May 1941, the Royal Navy ordered the court-martial of the Dunera's captain, officers, and several of the British guards. A senior officer and a sergeant were severely reprimanded and another soldier was reduced to the ranks, given a 12-month prison sentence, then discharged from the Army. Given the crimes involved, the punishments were fairly lenient.
Somewhat ironically, some of the passengers who were brutalized on the Dunera later were recruited into the British armed forces, with at least one of them seeing service during D-Day.
5. Massacres on the Eastern FrontThe Holocaust is a huge topic all by itself and you may read more about it here. However, rather than recapitulate all of the horrors here, instead we're going to zone in a few themes we've already seen play out in the other situations outlined above. This may show the slippery slope for some of the justifications given for other situations and those given for the brutality of the Eastern Front.
The German government openly sanctioned war crimes on the Eastern Front. This was not a situation where any mistakes were made - war crimes were authorized and ordered. This is the most egregious kind of war crime, with no claims of "mistakes" or "they did it first" or anything like that.
On 13 May 1941, OKW Chief Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, on behalf of the OKW and Adolf Hitler, issued the first in a stream of flagrantly illegal orders to the Wehrmacht concerning the upcoming Operation Barbarossa. Entitled (in German, of course) "Application of Military Jurisdiction in the Barbarossa Region and Special Army Measures," the order provided that German soldiers of all ranks were relieved of responsibility in advance for any future crimes committed within the Soviet Union. Basically, the order suggested, "anything goes" and anything up to and including outright murder by Wehrmacht troops was not only permitted, but encouraged.
As translated, the 13 May 1941 order provided in pertinent part:
Persons [Russian civilians] suspected of criminal action will be brought at once before an officer. This officer will decide whether they are to be shot.
With regard to offences committed against enemy civilians by members of the Wehrmacht, prosecution is not obligatory....This broad order, under any interpretation, dispensed with due process completely. It was contrary to every law of warfare regardless of specific treaties, and everyone within the Wehrmacht must realize this instantly - but it stands. Keitel eventually tried to retrieve all copies of this order on 27 June 1941. He ordered all copies of this infamous order destroyed, but the Soviets obtained copies and still retain them in the Kremlin.
|Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Reichenau, author of the Severity Order.|
The "Severity Order" was issued on 10 October 1941 by Field Marshal Walther von Reichenau, commander of Sixth Army in the Army Group South sector of the Eastern Front. The "Secret" Severity Order, also known as the Reichenau Order, was one of the "smoking guns" of Wehrmacht culpability in crimes that many of its members claim were only committed by the SS. It was one of the most savage and ruthless orders issued by any military command anywhere.
The Severity Order stated:
The most important objective of this campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the complete destruction of its sources of power and the extermination of the Asiatic influence in European civilization.
In this eastern theatre, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of the art of war, but also the ruthless standard bearer of a national conception and the avenger of bestialities which have been inflicted upon German and racially related nations. For this reason the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry. The Army has to aim at another purpose, i. e., the annihilation of revolts in hinterland which, as experience proves, have always been caused by Jews.The Severity Order embodied hateful language for anyone, but certainly for any soldier who only claimed to be "following orders." Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group South, approved of the Severity Order so much that he ordered it sent to all of the units under is his command.
The Wehrmacht troops of the Sixth Army quickly took the Severity Order to heart. On the same day that the Severity Order was issued, the German commander of Lubny, Ukraine, east of Kyiv (about midway to Poltava on the main road), ordered all Jews from the area to assemble on the 15th or 16th of October at an area outside of town named Zasulye Yar. There and then, approximately 4500 people were executed by Sonderkommando 4a and local auxiliaries. This was done in a similar fashion to previous executions at Babi Yar.
The point here is not that these were war crimes, as that should be patently obvious. It instead is that even the most obvious crimes can be seen as nothing of the sort given sufficient authorization from the state apparatus.
|The surrender of Singapore on 15 February 1942 led directly to the Sook Ching massacre, the Bangka Island Massacre, and other atrocities.|
6. Japanese MassacresParticularly during the few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops committed a series of atrocities in areas that they occupying. These involved both enemy combatants and civilians, with no distinction being made between the two. There were many more massacres than the ones discussed here, but you have to start somewhere.
In Singapore, the occupying Japanese began on 18 February 1942 a purge of Chinese residents who were perceived as hostile to their rule. This "cleansing operation" (Sook Ching) lasted until 4 March 1942. It was a meticulously planned and intentional operation by the occupying government, not an ad hoc massacre like many other atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers.
The targeted included, inter alia, members in the China Relief, wealthy donors to the China Relief, men with tattoos (who were assumed to be Triad members), anyone found with a weapon, and members of the previous British bureaucracy. However, the purge was not limited to any particular groups in some legalistic fashion, it encompassed anyone that local Japanese authorities felt were a threat to their rule. The point here is that the Sook Ching killings were part of the normal functioning of the new government of Singapore, not an aberration or unusual phenomenon.
The battle for Hong Kong also saw a series of atrocities on and after 24 December 1941. The Japanese:
- killed many men at the Salesian Mission at Shau Kei Wan
- massacred eight Canadian soldiers after the battle of Jardine's Lookout;
- murdered three prisoners at Causeway Bay, including a female air raid warden with the local Air Raid Precautions (ARP);
- killed four soldiers at a house on Blue Pool Road known as the "Black Hole of Hong Kong," including two Canadian officers;
- massacred 30 civilians at Blue Pool Road;
- killed at least 47 British POWs at The Ridge;
- killed at least 14 prisoners at Overbays;
- killed 7 men at Eucliffe;
- killed an additional 36 men near The Ridge;
- possibly killed six soldiers of the Middlesex Regiment at Deepwater Bay Ride (it is unclear if they had surrendered);
- murdered eight or twelve British soldiers at the Maryknoll Mission;
The most horrible atrocity on Hong Kong Island happened at St. Stephens hospital, where an unknown number of victims variously estimated at from 13-99 were executed and then cremated. In the most notorious incident there, the Japanese raped three British and four Chinese nurses before killing them. Canadian Captain Overton Stark Hickey of the RCASC was shot while trying to help the nurses. The rest of the victims were doctors and wounded POWs (or at least patients who should have been treated as POWs). Unfortunately, the full scope of the St. Stephens massacre was impossible to prove later because the Japanese efficiently disposed of the evidence.
|A group portrait of the nursing staff of the 2/13th Australian General Hospital in Singapore. Six of these ladies were massacred by the Japanese on Radji beach at Bangka Island during the fall of Singapore in February 1942.|
ConclusionWar crimes flowed throughout World War II. There was a progression through the color spectrum, from transparently legal orders to opaquely illegal ones that no reasonable person could consider proper. War crimes, however, usually involved shades of grey which, precisely because they were ambiguous, almost automatically meant they were not treated as crimes.
Was the area bombing of civilian areas legal? Yes, because the authorities of the time said it was. However, different authorities also said that the massacre of civilians on the Eastern Front was legal and authorized. Other authorities also said that the shooting down of search-and-rescue planes was legal. Was it? Again, yes, because the legal authorities said it was. Clearly, the dividing line on what is right and wrong cannot simply be whether superiors in the chain of command authorize it. They can decide that something is legal, but they cannot make it right.
There is only as much morality in war as is possessed by the leaders on both sides. Once morality becomes transactional, as appeared to be the case with the bombing campaigns, there are no crimes because there is no morality. Defining away war crimes did not mean they did not exist, simply that they were not punished.